Orlando, Florida -- On Wednesday night, the Solar Bears organization along with Kyle Dubas introduced new Solar Bears head coach Anthony Noreen. Noreen was recently awarded USHL coach of the year for his work with the Youngstown Phantoms, and was brought up through some shrewd decision-making in a joint discussion between Solar Bears management and Toronto (more about that from Dubas, below).
PPP was given excellent access to Dubas, so we interviewed him about his perspective on the Solar Bears, Marlies, Leafs, and his vision for the future of player development in these connected clubs.
I was joined in this interview by fellow Solar Bears beat reporter Don Money of Pro Hockey News. We shared our interview questions with each other beforehand, and agreed on the gist of the questions. The most interesting takeaways for me were the following:
- When pressing summer tasks are over, Toronto will think about extending the affiliation with the Solar Bears.
- Toronto and Orlando worked together on the Solar Bears' coach selection. Both groups came up with lists of coach prospects, and Noreen was on both lists.
- Noreen will head back to Toronto for rookie development camp and rejoin the Solar Bears in October.
- Toronto wants to place an emphasis on letting players develop with their minor club during their ELC, so that they are not called up prematurely, or called up and sent back down often.
- Dubas discussed Stuart Percy, Sam Carrick, Garret Sparks, and Tyler Biggs and their movement through the leagues as an example of development.
- Toronto will go beyond the 50 player contract list to assign players to ECHL-AHL two-way agreements.
Note: Here's the audio from Achariya Dubas Interview .
Don: Talk about your experience and how the Maple Leafs feel about the affiliation with Orlando.
Dubas: We feel very strongly about it, both in terms of its importance to our prospects and to our development model, it's extremely important, and the quality of the operation here, which along with Jason [Siegel, Solar Bears President] and now Anthony and Chris Heller [Solar Bears CFO], it's been wonderful to work with.
They made the decision as a management group to make a coaching change, and they asked that Toronto be involved, and we're just thrilled that Anthony's going to be here working with our players that are here developing with the Solar Bears. It's very exciting for us -- the way they operate here is very important to us, to the Maple Leafs, so we're very excited.
Achariya: Are you planning to extend the affiliation past next year, when it runs out?
Dubas: I think it's -- with everything that's happened with the Maple Leafs this spring, and obviously with the Solar Bears with their coaching search, and now we're talking about rosters, it hasn't been something that we've discussed yet, but it will be something that we're going to talk about here as soon as everything dies down and we get some time to focus on it properly.
From our end, it's something that we want to have a discussion with Joe [Haleski, Solar Bears Chairman and Governor] and Jason and Chris about.
Don: With your strong ties to junior hockey and the Soo and the OHL, talk about what the discussions were like for the Orlando team to be willing to go to the junior ranks to pull a head coach?
Dubas: When Jason and Joe flew up to Toronto it was early in May. After their season ended here they wanted to do a review of things. They told us they were planning on making a change, and asked if we'd like to be involved in the process. We said sure, and I gave him a list of people I thought he should talk to that would be great candidates. And he, vice-versa, gave me a list, and Anthony was someone that was on both of our lists, and that made it relatively simple.
I started doing more background work on Anthony. I'd already seen him - watching his teams play - and I knew him as a person. It was all very very positive, and the way that he developed players, nothing negative at all about it -- it was pretty simple that way.
Don: What were the aspects of Anthony that put him high on your list?
Dubas: I think that the way he played in Youngstown, they played with energy, they played with skill, they tried to make plays. And that league is one where there's a lot of change of personnel as well due to injury, or players moving from one league to the next, and to see him able to institute his system as players were shuffling in and out of the lineup was very similar I think to how it is in the ECHL, and that was a very important thing, in looking at him as a coach from my end.
And also the way he developed players, not only on the ice but off. They always left there with nothing but high praise in terms of their character as they went on to college. We're very excited about all that, and it's been fun to watch him work here in Orlando with the prospects.
Achariya: As far as prospects in the Leafs organization go, how would you present an opportunity to join the Solar Bears to someone who's been playing with the Marlies for a while?
Dubas: "For a while" -- depends how you characterize "for a while." A good example from last year would be Tyler Biggs, who was with the Marlies for most of a year, and then coming in and evaluating it and seeing his progression -- I thought he was really struggling, and he came down here and had new fire just breathed into him, new life as a prospect. He came back up with us and was an effective player for us. He was injured unfortunately -- and then Pittsburgh wanted him as part of the trade. But that to me is a good example.
It's a good place to start your career and get your career rolling, and it's a good place to get your career back on track if you've gotten off the rails a little bit. Now especially with Anthony here, that discussion will be far easier. We've said over and over that this is not a place of punishment, it's a place of development, we're not sending our players here solely if they've disappointed us, we want them to have a great season.
Garret Sparks is another excellent example. He was up and down his first year, and then came here last year and had the best save percentage of the league, and has established himself as an excellent prospect. It's exciting.
Don: The organization has talked a change in philosophy toward prospects, and not pushing them, letting them develop in their own time and then moving them up, talk about that and how that might affect the number of players that might be here in Orlando from the Toronto organization. I get the sense that you're looking to have more players than were here last year, down.
Dubas: I think that for us, it runs two-fold. We don't want our players going up to the Leafs before they're ready, and we don't want them shuttling up and down. We want players to be called up to the Leafs when they're young and on the first two years of their entry-level contracts ONLY when they prove that they can be a Leaf, all the time.
We don't want players going up and then coming down. We saw last year with Stuart Percy and Sam Carrick, they go up, and they come back down, and it really rattles the players' confidence. Even though it's a joyful experience to play your first NHL game, to make the team and get recalled, it gets your psyche out of order a little bit.
And I think that's on us, it's not on the players. We have to be the ones making sure we're doing what's right by the players. So for us, if players are developing along with the Marlies, players that are starting here [in Orlando] will be developing along with here... and it's a whole domino effect that rolls down.
I have a lot of trust in Anthony's ability to develop, that when a player is ready to come up to the Marlies, he's ready. And in the Marlies, when they're ready for Mike Babcock. So, there are three stages of development, even though there are many micro-stages within those that are vital. But we're very happy with the program we have in place now.
Don: Do you see more prospects being placed in Orlando to do that development?
Dubas: I think we're going to utilize beyond our 50 contract list, I think we've shown we have a greater affinity to assign players to American League contracts, or American League-ECHL two-way contracts. And not older players that we're just trying to get off the Solar Bears cap, but young players who have proven that they've had a chance to come play, and play well with the Marlies as well.
So I would assume that going into this year, we're working with Anthony, and he knows a lot of players from his time in Youngstown, and our scouting staff, Sheldon, and everybody involved, trying to make sure that we're stocking our full system of prospects. Guys who are a little bit under our radar that we think have potential, we can get on ECHL deals, ECHL-American League two-way deals, and let them run from there. We won't limit ourselves to just our 50 NHL contracts.
Don: Now, I know that the Leafs organization has a way of hiring a lot of guys like yourself from Junior hockey, is it now to a point where junior hockey has become a place where you can find talent both on the ice off the ice to run organizations?
Dubas: Well I hope so, I mean, we'll find out here --
Achariya: It's your one-year anniversary, right?
Dubas: Yes! So we'll find out quickly. If we can't, the hiring from Junior might go on hiatus for a while. [Laughs] But I think there's a lot to having the fortune to come up from major junior hockey, and there's talented people everywhere, I mean we have Norm Bazin from UMass Lowell, their head coach, he was a guest coach at our camp.
There are so many great college hockey coaches, and personnel, and also in junior hockey, rather than just recycling people, or bringing on people just from the American League. I'm a big believer in the head coach to have been a head coach previously so they can jump right in. Like Anthony was head coach in Youngstown, Sheldon head coach of the Soo, and of course Mike has been the head coach and has very successful stints in many places -- that to me is important. But we want to give equal opportunity to begin developing our own people, and Anthony falls under that.
He'll be with us through our rookie tournament in London all the way through our Leafs camp, and come back here [to Orlando] probably in early October. We're all really about developing our own people now, which is why we went to those lengths.